Solee's Report on the History of Coffee

What do goats and coffee have in common? Well as the folktale goes, an Ethiopian named Kaldi did not understand why his goats were playing and dancing so joyously one day, paying him no mind.  As it turned out, they had been nibbling on some berries from what we now know to be coffee trees.  Eventually, Kaldi’s curiosity got the best of him, and he joined his energetic goats…and the rest is history. Okay, okay, we really don’t know exactly when or who discovered the now second most valuable exported legal commodity (after oil), but the old wives’ tale still lives on.  The first printed record of coffee was in the tenth century, by an Arabian physician named Rhazes.  It is believed that by then coffee had been deliberately cultivated for hundreds of years.                                                                             Today we take for granted this mystical beverage, but its history reveals the strong impact coffee has made in many diverse cultures socially, politically, and economically.   It has been a companion for both the rich and the poor, used for its medicinal qualities and as a fuel for the thinkers of the day, as well as the meeting place for ideas and revolutions. Our modern techniques for brewing and trained baristas might fool us into thinking that coffee has always been served up delicious and sophisticated.  Yet, coffee has been through many stages to get to our “mocha lattes” today.  The coffee plant actually produces berries, of which the bean is in the center.  Its leaves and berries were boiled together to make a weak tea.  Warriors used to mix the berries with animal fat to eat for a great pick-me-up before battle.  Wine was made from the berry’s fermented pulp.  Qishr, a sweet beverage made from lightly roasted husks of the coffee cherry, led to a drink now known as kisher. It wasn’t till around the end of the sixteenth century that coffee beans began to be roasted and ground to make an infusion.                                                                                                                                 Coffee spread from Ethiopia into the Arab world most likely after the Ethiopians invaded Yemen. The Arabs called it qahwa (the Arab word for wine).  This is where the word “coffee” is derived.  Wealthy people had coffee rooms added to their homes which were used for ceremonial imbibing.  For the lower classes who could not afford such rooms, the “coffee houses” sprang up and filled quickly.                        By the fifteenth century coffee was introduced into the Islamic world by Muslim pilgrims.  Political leaders could not stop its popularity as it spread through Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa. Coffee was so popular in culture that Turkish women could actually divorce their husbands if they did not provide them with a sufficient supply.                                                We actually get our term, “mocha,” from the Yemeni port of Mocha, a very popular trade route which introduced coffee to French and Venetian merchants.  Although the Turks labored to monopolize the trees’ cultivation in Yemen by not allowing any fertile berries out of the port, during the 1600’s seeds were inevitably smuggled to the southern India, Holland, Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Timor, Bali, and other islands in the East Indies (who determined the world market price of coffee for many years).                                  As passion for the brew grew in Europe, Pope Clement viii blessed coffee as a Christian beverage so that it would not be the property of Satan…and we thank him for that.  During the second half of the sixteenth century, coffee shops were springing up all over Europe.  Doctors were peddling coffee for medical claims, while at the same time others were debunking its medical value.  In the next century, the French coffee house, Café de Procope, drew in a diverse crowd including Voltaire (who drank fifty cups a day), Rousseau (who called for coffee on his deathbed), Diderot, and a visiting Benjamin Franklin.  “The French historian Michelet described the advent of coffee as ‘the auspicious revolution times, the great event which created new customs, and even modified human temperament.’”  It provided public places for all types of people to meet and talk, while lowering the consumption of alcohol.                                                By the 1670’s coffee reached Germany.  Surviving the rumored controversy that           coffee caused sterility and stillborns, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his humorous Coffee Cantata in 1732.  It is said that Beethoven was very particular about his coffee, making sure his grind had precisely sixty beans to brew a single cup. Fredrick the Great, who liked to boil his coffee with champagne, was disgusted by how common a drink coffee had become to the masses.  He tried to stifle coffee drinking among the poor, but to no avail.                                                In London, during the early1700’s, coffee houses were known as penny universities.  And although only a mere penny you could get a cup of coffee and hours of a great conversation, the coffee houses were flourishing--paying more rent and occupying more premises than any other trade. Our custom of the “tip” began in the coffee houses of London.  Patrons would pay a few extra pence “To Insure Promptness.”  Lloyds of London, the famous insurance company, started as a coffee house that catered to seafarers.                                                              In 1689, the first American coffee house opened in Boston.  Daniel Webster referred to it as the “headquarters of revolution,” as John Adams, James Otis, and Paul Revere were regular frequenters.  After the taxation of tea by King George, the resulting Boston Tea Party was instigated in the Green Dragon Coffee House.  Coffee drinking then became a symbol of patriotism.                                                            The Merchant’s Coffee house in New York was the center of much political activity.  A group of radicals made the first plan for a union of colonists there, and in 1788 the United States Constitution was celebrated by raising a flag at this coffee house.  It was also the place used for the great reception after our first president, George Washington, was inaugurated.  Moving into the industrial revolution, coffee was an affordable way to provide warmth and stimulation so that the common person could work longer. It replaced beer soup for breakfast.  Coffee now was a common part of the working man and working woman’s diet.                                We have seen an uprising in coffee houses in the last twenty years. Once again, people have been coming together and sharing ideas over the brew.  Artists, poets, and business people once again have been using the coffee house as a social office.  But even more recently, the American culture has become so busy that the “to go” cup has become a popular choice.  Instead of a coffee break, it is being ordered by drive through and consumed on the run.  One has to wonder if coffee has lost some of its hospitable abilities and charm.                                    Throughout history, coffee has gone from being used for medicinal purposes, to being a guilty pleasure.  More recent research is proving coffee to be quite the health drink. As a matter of fact, coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet.  So, drink more coffee!  Three to five cups a day will prevent bowel cancer, liver cancer, and ovarian cancer, according to the World Cancer Research Fund (2007).  It has also been found to help prevent Type Two Diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, Cirrhosis of the liver, gallstones and lowers the number of liver enzymes in our blood. Not only that, studies are showing that moderate use of coffee increases athletic performance and endurance, improves concentration, alertness when driving, as well as enhancing the cognitive function of our brains throughout the day.                                 So, the old philosophers were right: coffee does make you smarter.  And those early doctors were right in using the popular beverage for medicinal purposes!  Now we can add health as an impact coffee is making in our culture today.